One of the most consequential people in modern politics is stepping aside. Rupert Murdoch announced Thursday that he will hand the reins of his media empire to his son Lachlan Murdoch.
It’s the end of an era, not just in American media but in American politics, the 92-year-old elder Murdoch having loomed over the conservative movement for decades.
That came largely through the programming of Fox News, the go-to venue for distilling the direction of — and deliberately assisting — the American right and the Republican Party. But Murdoch’s empire also carried influence through such publications as the New York Post and the Wall Street Journal.
Below are some political takeaways.
Murdoch’s letter announcing his exit includes a brief assessment of the political landscape.
“Elites have open contempt for those who are not members of their rarefied class,” he writes. “Most of the media is in cahoots with those elites, peddling political narratives rather than pursuing the truth.”
This comment could certainly be characterized as cynical, or at least un-self-aware, given all we learned this year in Dominion Voting Systems’ defamation lawsuit against Fox News, which ultimately led to a historic $787.5 million settlement.
Indeed, a bounty of evidence made clear that it was actually Fox going to great lengths to toe the line of the most powerful man in the world, Donald Trump. Fox promoted a political narrative about a stolen 2020 election that many within Murdoch’s organization understood was baseless or false, because the network worried that not doing so would alienate Trump and lose his supporters as viewers.
And those offering such sentiments included Murdoch.
In a deposition, he agreed with the statement that multiple prominent hosts had “endorsed at times this false notion of a stolen election.”
Documents show that Murdoch and others worried deeply about Fox’s election-night decision desk having called Arizona for Joe Biden. Murdoch at one point remarked that Fox calling the whole election for Biden after others at least “saves us a Trump explosion!”
When Trump began arguing that the election was stolen, Murdoch cautioned in an email to Fox News’s CEO, “We don’t want to antagonize Trump further.”
He also seemed to allude to the idea that Fox and the Republican Party should be on the same page. “Trump will concede eventually and we should concentrate on Georgia [the Senate runoffs], helping any way we can,” he said.
When asked about the “antagonize” email in his deposition, Murdoch explained of Trump: “He had a very large following, and they were probably mostly viewers of Fox, so it would have been stupid.”
These were not the words of a news organization covering the news without fear or favor. And the revelations in the lawsuit served to confirm plenty of suspicions about the value Fox placed on peddling its own political narratives rather than pursuing the truth.
The Dominion lawsuit might have been the most overt example of thrusting Murdoch and his multinational media empire’s political actions into the U.S. spotlight. But it’s hardly the only example of the Murdoch empire’s influence. (See this lengthy New York Times Magazine piece.)
Here are just a few:
Former New York mayor Ed Koch (D) once remarked that Murdoch’s endorsement and the New York Post’s favorable coverage of him in the 1977 mayoral primary “made the difference between winning and losing, and I am very grateful.” Murdoch is widely acknowledged to have played a similar role in the rise of later mayor Rudy Giuliani (R).Ronald Reagan’s 1980 campaign also credited Murdoch and the Post for delivering New York to Reagan’s campaign, the Times magazine reported.Murdoch in the 2000s cozied up to Hillary Clinton when it looked as if she might be destined for the White House.In the 2010s, Murdoch became a prominent supporter of the ultimately unsuccessful push for comprehensive immigration reform. He testified before Congress and wrote an op-ed in his Wall Street Journal.In 2015, during Barack Obama’s presidency, Murdoch tweeted of then-GOP candidate Ben Carson, “What about a real black President who can properly address the racial divide?” He later apologized.Fox took a skeptical view of Trump early in the 2016 Republican primaries, as best exemplified by a clash between Trump and then-Fox host Megyn Kelly at a Republican debate. But as Trump grabbed control of the contest, its coverage evolved in his direction, cementing a relationship that was beneficial for both sides.
The most significant event, of course, was the founding of Fox News in 1996. As the 2019 Times magazine piece recounted:
If you haven’t noticed, Murdoch’s exit is in large part overshadowed by the events of his final few months in charge. And that makes the timing seem inauspicious.
The Washington Post has reported that the $787.5 million Dominion settlement was the largest publicly disclosed defamation settlement in American history.
And Fox didn’t get to that point until it had already suffered months of embarrassing revelations. Trial discovery in the case laid bare the transactional conceit that seemed to undergird the whole agenda-setting operation. Not only did the network broadcast things that people knew better about and do so to align with the president and his party for the sake of its business model, but it suggested a relationship in which Murdoch and his media empire were subservient to Trump.
Where did Murdoch’s long-standing reputation as a kingmaker go? To this day, Trump reinforces that subservience by continually suggesting that his supporters might ditch Fox if it doesn’t play ball with him.
Fox has long maintained that, setting aside its conservative prime-time opinion hosts, it’s a serious and objective journalistic organization. “Fair and Balanced” was its slogan for years, as it sought to woo conservative viewers frustrated with the perceived liberal bias of the mainstream media.
However fanciful that posture was, it was seriously and objectively undermined only in the final months before Murdoch’s departure — in ways that will forever taint what he built.
A valid question is what comes next. Rupert Murdoch suggests he will remain involved as chairman emeritus of the Fox and News Corp. boards, but the day-to-day business will be handled by Lachlan.
For a time, it wasn’t clear who would succeed Rupert Murdoch. While Lachlan Murdoch hews closer to his father’s style and brand of conservatism, his younger and more moderate brother James has also figured in the conversation. It’s the lengthy drama that seemed to form the basis of the plot behind the acclaimed HBO show “Succession.”
Lachlan Murdoch’s ascent may provide the most political continuity, as suggested by the Dominion documents and his public comments.
The documents describe the son joining with his father in early November 2020 to caution against shows booking two prominent Democrats who had denounced the stolen-election narrative on Fox’s airwaves.
Most striking, Lachlan Murdoch at one point in mid-November that year objected to skeptical coverage of a Trump rally from the organization’s “news guys” and encouraged them to instead celebrate Trump. It bears emphasizing that this was the news operation, not its opinion hosts.
“News guys have to be careful how they cover this rally,” he wrote on Nov. 14. “So far some of the side comments are slightly anti, and they shouldn’t be. The narrative should be this is a huge celebration of the president. Etc.”
Lachlan Murdoch also recently suggested that the post-Dominion-settlement exit of Tucker Carlson, a particularly conspiratorial and extreme host, didn’t signal a new strategy for Fox.
“There is no change to our programming strategy at Fox News,” he said in May.